If you care at all about the blues, Jewish culture — or for that matter any immigrant culture — that helped shape America, you should not miss Machers and Rockers. Many of these cultures have, sadly, faded to the bland gray of assimilation — but not before leaving a permanent and indelible mark. Like Pete Hamill’s Why Sinatra Matters and David Margolick‘s Strange Fruit, this is the rare book that transcends “music” and instead takes a much, much wider view, pulling American culture into focus.
“Machers” is a yiddish word meaning “a big wheel, an operator,” and anyone remotely familiar with Chess Records patriarch Leonard Chess knows how spot on that description is. Author Rich Cohen presents a fascinating portrait of not only Chess and Chess Records, but the city of big shoulders and the immigrants who called Chicago home, the first wave of independent “record men,” and the blues itself.
The subtitle of the book — “Chess Records and the Business of Rock & Roll” — is telling; what we get of Leonard is his business dealings and how he built an empire, but little personal detail. Unless, of course, it’s while doing business — taking his son on road trips to scout acts, grilling steaks for Muddy Waters, and Chuck Berry bunking up at the Chess’ house.
All of this is filtered through a distinctly Jewish lens; they are “the first legion of white men who would cross the racial divide in search of riches, adventure, authenticity….men who a generation before might have run with gangsters, who a generation later might have worked on Wall Street.” Chess, like many of his artists did it the hard way, coming up through liquor stores and nightclubs, hustling at every opportunity, and the story Cohen tells is as riveting, salty and tough as Leonard Chess himself.
First and foremost, Chess was a businessman, intent on giving the people what they want — in this case, 'race music.' There are conflicting portraits of Leonard by his artists; some believed he was “ a cheap, chiseling son of a bitch” (Willie Dixon) and some considered him family (Muddy Waters). However, Chess provided a safe haven for the musicians, and many signed with Chess, believing “if they were going to get screwed, they’d rather get screwed by Leonard. Because at least Leonard was honest about it.”
Curiously, however, Chess did not embrace England’s exported rock’n’roll version of the blues, the accents, eyeliner and hair spray was something he did not understand and would not participate in. It was a move that would help doom both his label and America’s blues masters. Ironically, it would be the 'Black Power' movement of the Sixties that would push Leonard Chess out of the music game. Sensing the game —not to mention the times — had changed, Chess sold the label in a disastrous stock-loaded deal — a move that would prove a rare bad business decison.
If Robert Johnson’s story is the story of the blues, and Muddy Waters’ story is the story of Chess Records, then the story of the blues is the story of America. Cohen beautifully sums up Leonard Chess, Chess Records and the artists who would come to define the blues: “That’s America; no past, no pedigree, the great ones give birth to themselves.”
Machers and Rockers is essential reading.
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